Category Archives: News

Just Over Here, Making Local Media

This eponymous internet cubbyhole has gathered virtual dust in recent months, but I assure you, if you’re stumbling across this post, that my reporting chops have not gone entirely to seed.

In October 2016, TruthSayers News was launched by yours truly. The idea is to build toward a news outlet that isn’t reliant on a few big advertisers; a place where stories that need telling get told. The focus being so far on Ithaca and Tompkins County, New York, since that’s the place in the world where I find myself living and with the most knowledge of what’s happening, right now.

The local hospital, Cayuga Medical Center, has kept me the busiest. Since Cayuga Medical didn’t get a lot of critical coverage from other local outlets, particularly my former employer the Ithaca Times, there was plenty to say when TruthSayers launched.  One of the first stories I wrote on CMC was that nurses , who had been unionizing for a year and a half with little coverage of their complaints, were leaving CMC in a “mass exodus.” 

That trend hasn’t stopped, unfortunately for the patient care at the only hospital in this county of 100,000-plus people.  One very bad thing that happened there was one poor man who died in the emergency department waiting room.

Those are awful things to write about – of course, this being the business of news, that’s the sort of story the most people read.

It’s not all doom and gloom over at TruthSayers, but the idea is to keep punching up with stories that need telling from a perspective that is that of the every day person. There’s no lack of stories like that – the challenge right now is figuring out how to keep paying the rent. You can help me with that anytime at this link.

Follow TruthSayers on Facebook or Twitter for updates. If YOU are working on a project that needs some additional  writing, reporting, research, editing, blogging, or other media firepower, email me at jaydbrokaw at gmail.com. If you’re doing good work, I’ll be happy to help at reasonable rates.

In Internetland, Headphones Listen To You

Headphones traditionally serve as a delivery device, a conduit that brings sound directly to your ears.

A college-student created company called Musical Minds wants to make headphones smarter, capable of reading your mind.

“At Musical Minds,” says their About page, “we use innovative brainwave technology to show how each song you listen to changes the landscape of your brain in real time. Our unique algorithm then interprets these changes to create playlists that affect mood, focus, and motivation.”

The headphones, called “Trills,” are implanted with EEG sensors to track the listener’s brain waves as they listen to music. The requisite smartphone app will show the listener how  their brain reacts to what’s playing. The playlists, hooked up to Spotify, will be tweaked then to give you more of whatever music heightens your focus, your motivation, or whatever mood you might like to get into that day.

Or as the promotional copy puts it, the “mood app curates a playlist that helps you reach the emotional state you need, whether that’s carefree bliss or a good shower cry.”

“We’re actually redefining the end goal of listening to music,” Musical Moods co-founder and Ithaca College junior Jessica Voutsinas told The Ithacan. “You’re not reading a research paper on the theory behind music therapy. It’s actually working in real time, and we show you how it increases your focus, motivation, and mood. It’s not something you read about – it’s something you yourself are experiencing.”

Voutsinas told The Ithacan her “company’s goal is first and foremost to promote mental health wellness.”

That sounds all well and good, but the Musical Minds team still needs to answer some questions before Trills start helping music fans get a thrill.

For one, the app is connected to Spotify: music fans who can only get motivated by listening to Taylor Swift trash an ex-boyfriend will find no stimulus whatsoever, along with fans of Prince, Bob Seger, and King Crimson – though The Beatles are now an option on that service. Innumerable underground, independent, and unsigned artists will also be left out of the mood-change-via-music data revolution.

More importantly for those worried about online privacy – and who isn’t! – Musical Minds will need to mind that their service’s findings remain secure.

Why should you be afraid of your musical preferences getting out? In part, because if you’re not afraid, news people don’t really have any other ideas about how to get you to pay attention. Even scarier, imagine that Tipper Gore or someone like her who’s afraid of rock ‘n roll got hold of how your brain looks on death metal.

Do your serotonin levels spike when chain-listening to Slayer albums? Do vintage Ice Cube rhymes get your endorphins flowing? Can you sing of drowning your lover all a-smile? Well, then, the Surveillance State has got a cell for you.

Image courtesy of the Musical Minds website.

YIMBYs Say Yes, Build In My Backyard

Anyone who wants to pitch a tent in my backyard, pictured above, is welcome to stay for a while.

Whether extending this open invitation to live in the only backyard I’ve got qualifies me as a genuine YIMBYite, I don’t know. Perhaps, to be sure, we should have a Tiny House raising to create a more permanent living situation.

A YIMBYite, for those not hip to the Neo-Urban lingo, is the new, positive type of downtown-living cat who says “Yes, I most definitely want some more buildings in my city!” The YIMBYite – as in, “Yes, in my backyard” –  is into more people living in less space, walking to the grocery store, rolling with the changes. As opposed to the well-known “NIMBYite,” who shows up to meetings when new development is proposed and says “Not in my backyard!”

Second Ward alderperson Duc Nguyen informed me of the YIMBY, through this Ithaca Voice article summing up a new “housing development toolkit” put out by the White House earlier in September. Nguyen referenced a “YIMBYTown” conference, the first, held in Boulder, Colorado, this past June to talk about encouraging “abundant housing and sustainable infill in growing cities.”

The recommendations made in the White House “toolkit” line up with the YIMBY line. If you’ve been paying attention to Ithaca mayor Svante Myrick’s pro-development talk over the last few years, the recommendations are kind of a bore.

“Local and neighborhood leaders have said yes, in our backyard, we need to break down the rules that stand in the way of building new housing,” the White House document reports. Those rules include too-slow or too-stringent zoning approval processes, and land use laws which favor single-family homes over denser development.

The toolkit has 10 ideas for how localities can “modernize their housing strategies and expand options and opportunities for hardworking families.” Ithaca has already pushed toward some of the suggestions, in pieces, like scrapping parking requirements and allowing for higher builds in Collegetown and downtown. The city’s tax abatement program is seemingly constantly in flux, and an inclusionary zoning program is in the long, slow grind of legislative tweaking. (My last check-in with that process was in March, at this link.)

The main reason YIMBY groups exist, it seems, is to mobilize behind these neo-urbanist ideals. The problem of mobilization is one that Myrick lamented many a time during the approval process for the 210 Hancock affordable housing project. Few who don’t live somewhere yet are going to show up in support of their potential future home, or so his musings go. And while affordable housing was approved at 210 Hancock and at Stone Quarry in recent years, it seems less certain that many people in Ithaca are crazy about Really Big Buildings like that proposed at State and Aurora in the Triangle. Every unit matters, but It’s those big projects that are, in theory, supposed to give a big increase to supply and lessen the housing crunch for people who can’t swing this area’s high rents right now.

Though there might be a teensy bit less demand for housing now than in recent years, not everyone’s getting into somewhere nice this fall. Get at me about my backyard vacancy: don’t bring rats, please, though a ferret is OK. Better yet, if you’ve got an RV, I’ve got some gas money. Let’s go South. Winter is coming soon.

 

Voices For Freedom Speak In Ithaca

Writers, like most people, like to be noticed once in a while. Sit or stand at a keyboard all day in a quiet room, and even a misspelled email in ALL CAPS informing one of gross incompetence and grammar mistakes can be a comfort: “Well, at least somebody is reading,” the writer thinks.

Those writers who have come to Ithaca over the past 15 years through the City of Asylum program experienced a heavier sort of critical attention in their home countries. Your average letter-writer or tweeter might have some nasty things to say; the City of Asylum writers have had action taken against their lives.

Present at the Kitchen Theater on Sunday, September 25, were Yi Ping, the first Ithaca City of Asylum writer, who fled China along with his wife, poet/translator Lin Zhou after the Chinese government increased repression after the Tiananmen Square protests. Here was Sarah Mkhonza, who had her University of Swaziland office ransacked after criticizing the monarchy’s repressive regime. Journalist/activist Sonali Samarasinghe left Sri Lanka for the United States with her family after her husband, editor of a weekly paper openly critical of the government, was assassinated in 2009. And Raza Rumi, the current ICOA writer-in-residence, left his home in Lahore, Pakistan, after an attempt made on his life by Islamic militants in 2014 that left his driver dead.

In exile, the internet has allowed these writers to continue publishing for outlets in their homelands. Given their apparent distance from danger, one might think that they would grow more outspoken in their critiques. Yet the effect of exile has been somewhat the opposite for some.

Mkhonza said at the Voices of Freedom celebration on Sunday that she feels her words don’t have quite the same impact spoken from afar.

“I can be out here and speak, but it doesn’t get to Swaziland the same way as when I was there,” Mkhonza said.

In Pakistan, Rumi was a defender of liberal values, of human rights, and a critic of the military’s use of jihadist militias. He’s more careful in what he says since coming to the United States.

“I’ve been put in the position of telling people not all 1.6 billion Muslims are terrorists,” Rumi said, adding drily “It gets rather exhausting.”

In Sri Lanka, Samarasinghe said she was a “lot more strident.” In the U.S., she has found her style to be more “tempered and circumspect.”

“You have to be strident, or you’re not going to be heard with all that noise and fearmongering going on,” Samarasinghe said of her writing in Sri Lanka.

Despite the distance, their duty is still to write. As Yi Ping put it, though he’s a poet, essayist, and dramatist, he feels because in the U.S. he has “the freedom to write and speak, I should focus on political writing and help my friends.”

With her voice rising, Mkhonza said her work was to tell Swazis, especially women, “the freedom is theirs, the voice is theirs, and their stories can be told by them as well as by anyone.”

Though writers and journalists are by and large freer from the threat of physical violence in the United States, there are areas where critics here don’t dare to tread: Rumi reiterated a point he made in a March interview with me for the Ithaca Times that when it comes to coverage of national security policy, most outlets toe the government policy line.

Ithaca City of Asylum co-founder Anne Emmanuelle Berger said in a video introduction sent from Paris that Ithaca’s “marginality” and “diminutive size” is why this town is a good place for writers who question power. Far from the center of decision-making, writers in humble burgs like this one have more room to breathe, free of influence and fear. The pen might be mightier than the sword, but it’s a slower-acting force that needs space and time to have its effect.

The American writer is often guilty of not using freedom to its fullest ends; we pat ourselves on the back for living somewhere oppression isn’t so blatant, and congratulate ourselves on our wit and charm while ignoring that “shabby backstreet” of our own country where most people live, to borrow a phrase from Nelson Algren.

Writers worldwide would do well to heed Samarasinghe’s words every time they crack open the laptop or set pen to paper:

“I’m very, very critical of my country not because I hate my country, but because I love my country and want it to be a better place.”

Featured photograph of Yi Ping and Lin Zhou from YouTube.

Hunting for Intelligence in the New Planets News

My grandfather turned 87 last week, and being the considerate grandson that I am, I waited a few days to call  – to let the holiday linger, you know.

The report from Indiana included the news that he  enjoyed his birthday dinner of broasted chicken and a can of beans from the Pay Less grocery; that Mr. Trump was likely not spanked enough as a child, since he turned out to be such a brat; and that there were some new planets discovered that might support life though “their sun ain’t as hot as ours.”

Despite the provincial nature of my job as a local newsman, I sometimes like to know what’s going on out there in the worlds. So after exchanging weather notes with Grandpa and saying goodbye, I plugged “new planets” into the search machine.

The Fox News headline above was Number Two on the results list; given the bear-blinding flashlight advertised, it seems they have targeted what their readers want to know about life.

New aliens to hunt? Martha, pack your bags. We got a new place to go on safari!

And we wonder why the aliens don’t want to say hello.

The National Geographic headline reminds us of the paradoxes inherent in this thing we call life:

New Earth-Size Planets Would Be Nothing Like Earth

The three dimensions are so passe when we’re talking about outer space.

Listed as our “in-depth” option on p.1 of Google News results, the NatGeo lead is about as purple as the infrared light put off newly discovered ultracool dwarf star TRAPPIST-1  might appear to our eyes:

A tantalizing trio of Earth-size worlds circles a tiny, dim star relatively close to us, and each planet is within or near the region where the star’s light could support the whispers and sighs of extraterrestrial life.

Don’t worry about the aesthetic life of any potential life on this planet, though; as astrophysicist Michaël Gillon goes on to explain in the NatGeo article, “for local creatures with infrared vision, plants would have some colors and would look much nicer.”

Several of the articles, like that from CNN – which, oddly, nests the news under its “health” directory – and that from his home school of MIT make sure to quote postdoc Julien de Wit’s line that it was a “risk” to bet on looking into the infrared spectrum. Such a risk that, as the MIT article notes, it was funded in part by the Belgian Fund for Scientific Research, the European Research Council, and NASA.

The Reuters lead is a simple example of the basic issue in reporting on Outer Space news: The only thing we care about is “Can we go there?” and that’s the only way science gets funded.

So you have this:

The discovery of three planets that circle a small, dim star could bolster the chances of finding life beyond Earth, astronomers said on May 2.

Which, rewritten for more pedestrian topics, comes out something like this:

The discovery of a fact could bolster the chances of having something we want to be true, be true, authorities said.

Oh, that’s how we write the news anyway, from official handouts and assertions? I’ll shut up now.

Start reading the letter in Nature which broke the research and it becomes clear why all these sources are fine with repeating whatever the scientists tell them: even the intelligent layman can’t be expected to decode the stuff in these journals.

But I can read good enough to know that I like these two sentences of “it depends”:

The planets’ atmospheric properties, and thus their habitability, will depend on several unknown factors. These include the planets’ compositions; their formation and dynamical history (their migration and tides); the past evolution and present level of the extreme-ultraviolet stellar flux (probably strong enough in the past, and perhaps even now, to significantly alter the planets’ atmospheric compositions); and the past and present amplitudes of atmospheric replenishmenmechanisms (impacts and volcanism).

Unfortunately, a Tbilisi, Georgia-based psy-trance duo has beat you and me to the band name “Stellar Flux.” 

I do have to give the Google ‘rithm credit for its selection on one count. At the bottom of the page one results for “new planets” was this science column from Tim Philp of the Brantford (Canada) Expositor: the opening and closing ‘graphs are generically “gee-whiz, things have got crazy since I was a kid,” but in the core five paragraphs, he does some fine expository writing on how astronomers have been finding so many more planets in recent years. It’s a two minute read that’ll leave you more intelligent. 

 

 

Inpatient Detox Not So Much In The Ithaca Drug Plan

Another story on the Ithaca drug policy. This was all reported in two days after the plan rolled out, but the story ran another week later. The not-for-profit heads quoted below were a bit offput by the plan’s rollout: the short of their complaint was “We’re working on more solutions … but we don’t go around announcing projects until the funding is worked out.” Photo is of the Dick Van Dyke Center in Seneca County, which, from what I hear, has no connection to the actor Dick Van Dyke. 

A lack of places to go for people to get off addictive substances is a common complaint around Ithaca. Tompkins County has neither an inpatient detox facility nor a crisis walk-in detox. The perception, at least, is that one must be court-mandated or fail out of an outpatient program like those at the Alcohol & Drug Council (ADC) or Cayuga Addiction Recovery Services (CARS) to get a spot in an inpatient detox – the closest of which are in Syracuse, Binghamton, Elmira, and the state-run Dick Van Dyke facility in Seneca County.

Take this quote from someone in the “business” focus group convened to give input to the new Ithaca drug policy for an example of this frustration: “Most people addicted to heroin are going to be on Medicaid. In order to get into in-patient, you have to fail out of outpatient … They need to have three or four dirty drugs screens before they can qualify to get into inpatient, which is where they needed to be initially, which can take 3-4 months.” Or read our June 2014 feature on the heroin epidemic “No Question It’s Gotten Worse” on ithaca.com, which features the frustrations of several people in recovery.

“Insurance is probably our biggest struggle with the inpatient (facility),” said Monika Taylor, director of chemical dependency services at Crouse Hospital, Syracuse, which hosts a 40-bed unit. “There’s supposed to be parity with behavioral health and primary health, but I don’t know if that’s fully happening quite yet.”

Once a patient does get into treatment, sometimes the insurance company might only end up covering a few days of treatment, Taylor said.

“You hardly ever see 28 days (of treatment) anymore,” said Rich Bennett, director of the Ithaca Rescue Mission. “You have to ask if it’s worth it to go into treatment for a week, and then whatever jobs and relationships are there might go away.”

Nevertheless, when someone walks into the Rescue Mission and says “I can’t take it anymore, get me into treatment,” Bennett said they do their best to get someone help because their attitude might “drastically change in three days.”

ADC has been in talks “for a while” with New York’s Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services (OASAS) to bring an inpatient detox to Ithaca, according to executive director Angela Sullivan. For now, ADC offers what they call “intensive outpatient” programming, which includes three three-hour meetings a week along with medically-assisted treatment for most of its clients trying to get off opiates – a number which has increased from about 5 percent of people calling them their primary drug in 2011 to about a third of the approximately 500 people ADC served last year.

As a state-certified provider of addiction services, ADC does have to reveal a positive drug test to probation or social services, whoever the referring partner might be.

“We do not automatically discharge someone for a positive test,” Russell said. “That is an old school myth that I don’t even think was true 10 years ago. When someone tests positive there’s always a conversation.”

Bill Rusen, CEO of CARS, found the lack of detox options in the Ithaca Plan to be its most objectionable omission.

“Imagine (Cayuga Medical Center) without an ER,” Rusen said. “When CMC was being built, they might have said we’re going to have shamans in there, it’s going to be fantastic. We’re going to have aromatherapy, an ICU, cancer care, cardiac care, but we’re not putting an emergency room in. If you’re having a heart attack you’re really not too interested if the shaman shows up. In this unfair, fallen universe we live in where there’s not enough time, energy, or resources for everything I think the first choice has to be a detox.”

CMC did host a detox until 2009, but “it’s a loser” financially, Rusen said. “You have to have a nurse and a medical person on duty all the time, even if they never saw a patient that day. Even insurance which pays better than Medicaid doesn’t pay enough to cover the costs.”

Rusen said he’s had a proposal “sitting around for about two years” to cover a walk-in outpatient detox, which would cost about $150,000 a year to cover staffing.

Though there’s no inpatient detox for Ithaca in the new plan, one of the recommendations is a 24-hour crisis center, which would serve as a place for law enforcement to bring intoxicated people without going to the CMC ER, a place with short-term temporary beds for people waiting an inpatient bed, and a safe “chill out” spot for people to go rather than being inebriated in public.

At the moment of crisis, the idea for the 24-hour center is to replace trips to the CMC ER, which cost the hospital, Bangs Ambulance, and Ithaca police $413,526.91 in 2015, according to the plan – one of the very few hard numbers included in the report, and one that CMC has made clear is not sustainable.

There is money available for this kind of diversion right now, according to Rusen and Russell, in the form of the Delivery System Reform Incentive Payment (DSRIP). The idea of DSRIP is to reduce avoidable hospital trips by people on Medicaid 25 percent in the next five years, with up to $6.42 billion available statewide.

“I assume this center is going to piggyback on (DSRIP) a little bit,” Rusen said.

The Deadline Cometh

Wrote this column on a Tuesday morning because I thought we had some opinion page space to fill in the Times. We did not. It might run sometime. It might not.

This column is written on deadline. It must be written very soon, or it will not exist.

Newspapers, like the one you hold in your hands, still have deadlines. On Tuesday here at the Times and Finger Lakes Community Newspapers office, the work reaches a focused pitch as 5 p.m. comes closer and our 10 papers must be sent to the printer in Williamsport, Pa.

How sharp my editor’s words for my late copy will be today, I don’t yet know. It will depend on the other writers, freelancers mostly, all of whom have talent and knowledge in their field. Most of whom are prone to sometimes turn in stories that are too long or too short, missing a photo, that need a fact-check on some arcane reference or Latin phrase.

Or the question will come: “Do you have anything else laying around?” A fresh half-page has opened up, demanding fresh copy, and we have no wire service to provide filler. Rewriting a press release is a last resort. So an offhand meeting remark by some official on an in-progress project gets a follow-up call, or at least a close interpretation of its supporting documents, and 400 words on the subject appear in the paper.

The reporter must be grateful for deadlines, for without them, none of his work might exist. What us clock-driven moderns call procrastination is a specialty of his. An idea, a phrase, stored in the dark closet of his mind is safe in there. Exposed to light via print, it becomes everyone’s possession. Better for the idea to rot in obscurity than be found banal or skipped over by the reader. Better to leave it on the shelf than to open the door one night and find the hoard empty, with only canned conventional wisdom left over to heat up for the readers. Only hacks of the Murdoch or Sulzberger line can stomach serving that cancerous stuff for long.

Anyway, some procrastination is good for creativity, says one of those recent studies that confirm our vices which the American press is so good at disseminating. Sometimes procrastination even pushes one to clean the house, or take a look at bills going unpaid, an activity which quickly puts one back to real work. And whether procrastination, “time-wasting,” is a vice depends on whether the feeling behind it is one of contemplation or acedia – apathy, to be “without care.” The difference is between the olive-munching Greeks speculating on the nature of existence, and that modern cry “I’m bored – give me something, anything, to do.”

Our service agencies at their best can only honestly answer modern longing with things to do. The progressive ones go beyond suggesting “get a job, any job,” but their mandate to keep everyone safe and healthy, perfectly normalized, does not include an instruction manual to make active, engaged, reaching minds. Trained to go to work and then be entertained for generations now, it’s no wonder that the American has no idea what to do with off hours. There are so many hours, with only a few lucky ones still getting 40 hours of repetitive tasks to do for decent pay these days.

The deadline is a holdout from more industrial days, when one’s work might have been hard and exploitable, but at least you knew when you had to work. Most of my colleagues’ deadline pressures have dissipated into the 24/7 news cycle, that terrible rolling deadline, when any happening, anywhere, needs written up immediately to capture web traffic that no one has yet figured out how to make pay.

There’s more to say, but this column must end. Two more stories to write today.

WATCH: Caps Creep in GANNETT HEADLINES

Our local daily is the Ithaca Journal, Frank Gannett’s second newspaper; purchased by the grand old man of newspaper consolidation in 1912, the Journal just had its 200th birthday. That fact went unnoticed by the paper, given that the folks over there are down to three reporters.

Last weekend, while doing my usual round of online check-ins with Ithaca’s other media outlets, I noticed this doozy of a headline in the story carousel:

Teacher viewed SEX VIDEOS with students, polic…

It occurred to me that there had been lots of headlines popping up on the Journal‘s site recently with some variation of the RANDOMLY CAPITALIZED format. The New York tabloids freely use ALL CAPS in headlines, but they almost always use them before a colon, in a “HEAD: Here’s the subhead” format.

So, to indulge my idle and irresponsible speculation that perhaps Gannett is gearing up for another purchase — the Daily News, last I heard, is still on the block with a price of $1 attached – I took a swing around the internet to see if CAPS LOCK was taking over other Gannett properties.

The answer gleaned from this highly scientific anecdotal survey, in short, is that if Gannett’s NEWSROOM OF THE FUTURE will be featuring lots of random caps to INCREASE ENGAGEMENT, its Southern Tier papers are serving as the incubator for the program.

I skimmed pages as far down as clicking “more news” twice will let you. 27 stories are shown on most of the Gannett pages, before you can’t click anymore and run into the video and FEATURED CONTENT bars, because the “8 biggest moments in Apple history” and “Why this grocery store unisex bathroom sign went viral” is essential local reporting …

There weren’t any random caps at the Detroit Free Press, the Louisville Courier-Journal, the Asheville Citizen-Times. Nothing in Reno or the Springfield (Mo.) News-Leader. Shreveport, Pensacola, Tallahassee, all have yet to start serving the capitalization lords. Nothing in Indy or Phoenix.

The Sioux Falls Argus Leader missed an opportunity to write THUNE: GAPS EXIST in Sioux Falls airport security. Burlington missed a chance to put CLEAN TOILET BOWL on their sidebar. A Green Bay columnist remarking on a Lysistrata-inspired movement to stop Trump got the relatively tame header “Trump or sex?” rather than

TRUMP OR SEX? 

Look at that – how can you resist?

There certainly are some Gannett sites using some caps.

Gannett’s lone Montana paper, the Great Falls Tribune, had several GALLERY and UPDATE headers. Delaware’s News Journal featured a RECAP and a TGIT! – which I presume to stand for Thank Goodness/God It’s Thursday, as it was a link to the entertainment section.

Bruce Springsteen’s hometown rag had some WATCH on its homepage, while centraljersey.com used STUDENT NEWS.  Morristown was using WATCH and LETTER and PHOTOS, though a video of “True Islam” program in Mountain Lakes got a lower-case “Watch.” “History:” and “Police:” got no caps treatment along with “WATCH” in Vineland, but “FISHING” did.

Gannett has six papers in New York. Poughkeepsie had a SPEAK UP to encourage commenters to speak up. Rochester and Westchester’s Journal News (lohud.com) seem to have avoided the bug, even while using identical headlines on Albany bureau generated items like “How they fared in the state budget.”

Ithaca, Binghamton’s Press & Sun Bulletin and the Elmira Star-Gazette, old Mr. Gannett’s very first newspaper, share a lot of editing and content. And here is where the CAPS seem to be given their greatest freedom. All of these headlines were up at the same time one early morning late last week. The CAPS are original; the colors are my innovation. If you’re reading Gannett executives, I’m available for consulting gigs.

From Binghamton:

SETTLE IN: Fourth Cal Harris trial

TAKES YOUR BREATH AWAY  (a N.Y. cigarette tax story)

TROUT OPENER: mixed results for anglers.

UPDATED: Who’s the best? 34 years of all-star hoops

ZERO FATALITIES: DEC says 2015 safest season in decades

MAKING A MURDER TRIAL: Harris case needs resolution

And then there was “SUMMER PLANNER: Send us your event listing” and “How much for THAT house? Look it up here,” “HOW MUCH? NY educator pay, pensions a click away … those are promoting a database site Gannett’s been building that might or might not be more navigable than plucking things like salaries and government contracts straight from state sites.

A couple favorites that were up on Ithaca:

NAME CHECK: See if you’re owed unclaimed money

ORANGE PRIMER: What you need to know about Syracuse

PARTICIPATE: Election 2016 coverage

And this, on Facebook.

SAD STORY: Suffocated while asleep. Mom rolls on child

Fortunately, DEATH NOTICES is not yet part of the style guide.

See the above image for Elmira’s current idea of how to get people “engaged.”

OH, %$@#*&. DID YOU MISS SOME NEWS?

While compiling this piece, I stumbled across an item printed in the May 11, 1977 Washington, Pa. Observer-Reporter regarding a recent purchase Gannett had made of a western chain.

Al Neuharth told the stockholders there has been some recent criticism of newspaper groups or chains, the story said, and then closed like so:

“The infusion of professionalism that Gannett and its subsidiaries bring to these newspapers will convince even the critics or cynics that it matters little whether newspapers are owned by individuals, or families, or partners, or chains,” he said. “What really matters to the readers is what those owners do with them.”

The Medical Treatment Options for Opiate Addicts

Here’s the original story I wrote on medically-assisted treatment recommendations in Ithaca’s much-written-about drug policy; it was cut down a bit on the end for print, since Vivitrol wasn’t mentioned in the mundanely-named “Ithaca Plan.”  I thought it worth fleshing out what exactly the issues with these treatments are right now, since no one else was doing it, and especially since in a lot of places recommending something like a methadone clinic would raise hell all on its own (hello, Williamsport!). This story ran as part of our March 2 cover package, a week after the plan’s official release. Photo is mine, of Nicole Pagano, who has an honest-to-goodness soda counter in her pharmacy. 

Beyond the potential “supervised injection facility” for heroin addicts not yet taking steps to recovery, there are many more recommendations in the new city drug policy for new and increased services to help those who want to get and stay off dope. A large part of building the comprehensive “recovery-oriented treatment continuum” the plan proposes is getting people access to what’s called “medically-assisted treatment” – that is, drug treatment that help dull cravings for the dangerous street stuff.

Mayor Svante Myrick said last week that one of the plan’s “low hanging fruit” could be convincing more physicians to prescribe Suboxone – the brand name for a combination of buprenorphine, an opioid, and naloxone, which deters use by injection. Under federal regulations, a doctor can only prescribe the drug to 100 patients at a time.

“If the mayor has a special relationship with the president and he would like to sign an executive order to lift the cap, that would help,” said Dr. John Bezirganian, one of four doctors in Tompkins County currently certified to prescribe Suboxone.

Bezirganian has a private psychiatry practice and is medical director for county mental health and the Alcohol and Drug Council (ADC). Since he started prescribing Suboxone about 15 years ago, he’s treated 520 people with the drug – about 20 of his initial patients are still with him today.

In earlier days, if someone came to him off the street and asked for Suboxone, he told them to go to the ADC, and then he could generally promise to get them onto the drug once they graduated from treatment. Because of the limit on prescriptions, now he has to make choices about his patients.

“To some extent I’m playing God a little bit, but I have to pick the best available people,” Bezirganian said. “If I have to make a choice of a single mother who’s sober and working against someone dabbling in other drugs. A young single guy might say that’s not fair. And it’s not fair. But that’s the way it goes.”

The original limit was 30 Suboxone patients per practice, “but they raised it to 100 because no one was signing up,” Bezirganian said.

A special Drug Enforcement Agency number must be issued for a Suboxone provider. There is a seven-hour course to get certified on the drug, some of which is mere “hoop-jumping training,” Bezirganian said. More so than the training itself, he thinks that more doctors don’t participate because of the effect they think prescribing Suboxone might have on their private practice.

“I think many primary care doctors would be fine if they have five people they like and can do it for them, but they don’t want 30, 50, 100 people coming in the door saying ‘Hi, I want Suboxone,’” Bezirganian said. He gets four or five calls a week, and keeps a few spots open in case someone in special circumstances, like pregnancy, needs the drug.

“If I had the spigot open it’d be limitless,” Bezirganian said. “If all doctors could prescribe it, I don’t know how big it would be.”

Nicole Pagano of the Green Street Pharmacy said she has developed a “good working relationship” with ADC and Cayuga Addiction Recovery Services (CARS) since she opened her shop in 2010.

“I can spend hours and hours and hours on the phone to figure out insurance,” Pagano said. “We try to work out insurance ahead of time. Sometimes we can use coupons for the medication to help someone cover the cost for the first few days … If we can’t treat someone today, they might be lost tomorrow.”

Pagano strives to foster a “judgment-free zone” at GSP; she said many people going on Suboxone are in a situation where they’re afraid of losing their children.

“With no other disease do you have the pharmacist look at you like, ‘Oh, another one of those,’” Pagano said. “Everyone who comes in here is dealing with something … One day of heroin use is more dangerous than a lifetime of Suboxone.”

People in recovery dealing with the aide of methadone right now have to leave Tompkins County to get their treatment. The Ithaca Plan recommends adding a methadone clinic here or even, as Myrick has floated, a mobile unit to distribute the drug.

Monika Taylor, director of chemical dependency at Crouse Hospital, Syracuse, said that there are currently seven patients commuting from Tompkins County on a daily basis to the Crouse methadone clinic. Her clinic can serve up to 650 people at any one time under state regulations, with a waitlist about nine to 12 months long and about 350 people deep right now. The program admitted 265 people in 2015, its most in a year since opening in 1975, and is serving about 550 people at the moment.

The only issues that can move someone up the wait list are either pregnancy or being HIV positive.

“It’s challenging for people to understand we can have a wait list with capacity,” Taylor said. “The problem is when you admit someone into treatment a lot goes into that – methadone is a controlled substance and it requires pretty close monitoring. For the first three weeks or so there’s daily assessment of somebody in that induction phase to get to that therapeutic dose where they’re neither sedated nor going through withdrawal.”

Most people in treatment of opioid addiction do receive some kind of medically-assisted treatment, according to Angela Sullivan, executive director, of ADC. About 33 percent of ADC’s approximately 500 patients last year were admitted for opiates as their primary drug – up from about 5 percent in her first year, 2011. Of that 33 percent, about 27 percent of their total patients received some form of medical assistance.

Heroin-assisted treatment is also mentioned in the plan as something to be explored – providing addicts who don’t respond to Suboxone or methadone with synthetic heroin is a “last resort,” though, according to Peter Schafer of the New York Academy of Health.

One medical treatment unmentioned in the plan is Vivitrol, the brand-name for naltrexone, an opiate blocker that also treats alcohol dependency, which can be prescribed by any doctor and requires a monthly injection.

Alkermes, Vivitrol’s parent company, is “going to every county and pushing it in jails,” Bezirganian said. Because of serious interactions with opiate use, “they tell you only to prescribe it to people who are highly motivated, like an anesthesiologist with a drug problem or people on state parole,” the doctor said.

In an ideal world, Bezirganian said that Suboxone would be widely available for people no matter what other recovery steps they’re taking.

“Some people aren’t that interested in the whole recovery thing, going to groups, which is part and parcel of coming to an agency,” Bezirganian said. “For people coming in using lots of heroin, you could start them on a good dose and lower it over time. You can let people detox themselves.”

Police Not So Pleased With Shooting Heroin, Legally

Here’s the law enforcement angle story about the “Ithaca Plan,” the drug policy rolled out by Mayor Svante Myrick in late February 2016. This story ran as part of our March 2 cover package, a week after the plan’s official release. Image is that week’s cover illustration, representing the “four-pillar” plan, by Marshall Hopkins. The sheriff’s quotes were contributed by my colleague Jaime Cone, who also did a fantastic interview for the issue with the fantastically named Herebeorht Howland-Bolton.  My portion, with IPD Chief Barber, was completed in-person at Island Fitness, a gleaming palace of ellipticals and weights on the Ithaca waterfront; the chief saw me walking outside along the Inlet while working out and he gave me a call. We’d been playing phone tag, and he was leaving for vacation the next day. Score one more in favor of aimless walks. 

The supervised injection facility for heroin users proposed as part of Ithaca’s new municipal drug policy garnered lots of media attention, but not much in the way of praise from local law enforcement leaders.

Tompkins County Sheriff Kenneth Lansing said his department was not consulted in the development of the drug plan.

“We all know that people that are doing things they shouldn’t be doing are paranoid, and I’m just not sure how safe they’re going to feel going to a facility that’s going to allow them to do this,” Lansing said about the injection facility. “There are hurdles with the legality to look at. Nothing against the mayor; I think he’s doing a hell of a job, no doubt about it, and the plan has some great ideas. I just can’t accept [the injection facility], and I can’t support it.”

Ithaca police Chief John Barber said that as “an officer of the law, I have to uphold the law.”

“I applaud Mayor Myrick for coming up with a plan that’s not business as usual,” Barber said. “I don’t agree with all aspects, but [the plan] could do a lot of good and ultimately save lives.”

Even if the injection facility comes to be at all, it’s certainly not happening immediately. The facility does have the backing of Gwen Wilkinson, the Tompkins County district attorney, but as Myrick said at the Feb. 24 press conference the city has “no interest putting time and resources into something that will be shut down a couple days later.” Getting the power to open such a facility will likely take a legal change or at least the governor’s support, the mayor said.

One major recommendation in the “Ithaca Plan” does not face any legal hurdles: starting a“law enforcement assisted diversion” (LEAD) program. The LEAD concept was pioneered in Seattle in 2011.

The “diversion” in LEAD means that police can use their discretion to “reroute people into the intake process, rather than court,” Barber said. One of the findings in the Ithaca Plan is that drug courts “are not a sufficient solution” because of the strict requirements like total abstinence from substances.

The gist of the LEAD idea is to get people struggling with addiction some help, rather than adding to their complications by further entangling them in the criminal justice system or taking them back to the emergency room for one more night that doesn’t solve any of their underlying problems.

“We can’t, and neither can the hospitals, take these frequent fliers—the people who are constantly taking up the professional facilities,” Lansing said. “The hospital doesn’t have the time or the staff to deal with that, and other than putting them in a cell by themselves there’s not much that we at the jail can do. It’s a very difficult thing, withdrawal.”

In July 2015 Albany became the first New York city to approve the concept, and it has since received at least one grant of $70,000 from a private foundation to hire a staffer.

The memorandum of understanding passed by Albany’s Common Council to start their LEAD program calls for a protocol-making committee made up of representatives from law enforcement and relevant county and city departments, like mental health. Non-profit service providers and the Drug Policy Alliance, a New York City nonprofit that played a large role in writing the Ithaca Plan, serve at will on the committee in an advisory role.

In July 2015 Barber attended meetings on the LEAD concept hosted by the White House. He said at the Feb. 24 press conference that he came back “renewed” after seeing how a plan could be “put together for a specific person, and then it’s working.”

Barber couldn’t provide numbers offhand, but said that people with drug problems are responsible for well over half of property crimes in Ithaca.

“People who are addicted are stealing to support their habit,” Barber said. “There are a small number of people in the community who are in and out on a regular basis, and the way we approach it now is not working.”

“Police officers are in the field every day building a rapport with people,” Barber continued. “[LEAD] is really another form of community policing.” •